By Daniel L. Vollrath, Ed.D. and Scott Einhorn

It is no secret that as teachers we want our students to behave intelligently. The more we model, promote, infuse and build a culture of effective habits within the classroom, the more inclined students will be to display them spontaneously.

What habits are we talking about?

The Habits of Mind, developed by Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick, are a set of 16 dispositions to help people confront challenges. Instead of giving up, these 16 habits are essential in figuring out solutions. One way to support the Habits of Mind within the classroom, and infuse them into an aspect of curriculum, is through writing.

How can the Habits of Mind improve behaviors and writing?

As writers it is always important to develop and improve your writing to create the best piece possible. This process takes time, commitment, and mental energy. While the fundamentals of writing emphasize grammar, structure, fluency and style, it is also important to focus on developing habits.

In all aspects of life, in order to be successful in a particular job, sport, hobby or other endeavor, one needs to develop and build on the habits necessary to complete the task with success. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, is believed to have had a learning disability—most likely dyslexia. He was reportedly kicked out of school at the age of 12 for not focusing or finishing his work. He also had a very hard time spelling words correctly, but he nonetheless succeeded as a writer.

Develop the Habits of Mind as an internal compass that will guide your students through the entire writing process—from concept, inquiry, and research through outlining, drafting, and revising.

What follows are the 16 Habits of Mind for Writing that you can share with your students. While the Habits of Mind can be applied to many aspects of life, writing is a useful activity around which to reinforce them.

Habits of Mind for Writing


Are you going the extra mile and working to complete your writing goal?

You have 40 minutes of writing workshop time, so you set a goal for yourself to complete a well-developed introductory paragraph. As you push yourself to finish this goal, consider the commitment you are putting forth. The goal is not to just get it done so you can be ready to leave class; the goal is to complete the piece of work with excellence.

Persisting through distractions is key here. You have a computer in front of you, and YouTube is a click away—it’s tempting. This is where you remind yourself that not only did you commit to completing the paragraph, but that you are also practicing persistence. This is being mindful of the habit.

Managing impulsivity

How did I manage my pacing of work?

We all have been there: it’s Wednesday night and your analytical essay is due first period tomorrow morning. You hate this feeling of stress, anxiety, procrastination and regret. You hate knowing that you need to pull an “all-nighter” to get it done. So how can you prevent this from happening over and over?

Well, when you receive a writing assignment, make sure you put the final due date on your calendar, and then create a schedule to complete the project. Consider a timeline of personal due dates for different sections along the way. This kind of tracking will alleviate stress and anxiety, which in the end will eliminate your impulsivity. Ultimately, this habit will have a positive impact in most aspects of your life, whether it’s getting to the airport on time or wrapping up your boss’s project ahead of schedule.

Listening with understanding and empathy

Are you listening to other viewpoints?

Get into the habit of listening closely to what others have to say when presenting information and conversing. The idea is to try and understand another person’s perspective and feelings, especially when they differ from your own. In other words, put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

An argumentative classroom discussion is a great example: certain topics can elicit valuable conversation and offer the opportunity to understand opposing views. Picking up on a peer’s tone of voice, emotion and conviction will enable you to empathize with them. This habit is particularly useful, even necessary, when researching, outlining, and drafting claims and counterclaims.

Thinking flexibly

Is there another way to write this?

During the narrative writing process you go back and edit your paper. You find two paragraphs that you believe suffer from one or more of the following: they’re ineffective, not captivating, and/or just plain boring. Ask yourself, “What can I do to improve these paragraphs?”

Many times you have opportunities in your writing to show your ideas in a way that most writers would never think of. This is thinking flexibly.

Thinking about thinking (metacognition)

How did you organize your thinking? What was the process you used to begin your writing? Know your knowing.

You receive a literature analysis essay assignment and feel overwhelmed because of your lack of knowledge about the process of literary analysis. At this point you know that you need to figure something out. When such problems arise, try this checklist:

• Take some time to research the issue you are having.

• Search out some examples of good high school-level literary analysis essays.

• Talk with friends/peers about the issue.

• Ask the teacher questions.

In my experience, this was most successful in helping me understand what I needed to do in order to be successful. I know myself and what works best for me.

Striving for accuracy

Are you asking, “Is this my best piece of writing”?

After finishing an argumentative essay you are unsure about the proper way to cite references. Set aside time to research, proofread and edit the citations found in your paper. Do it again. If the paper references six items, make sure you included six items. What about grammar, structure and fluency? Check the paper again.

Questioning and posing problems

Are you asking other people questions?

Before you begin writing your feature article for your blog, make a list of questions about the style of writing you plan to use. Discuss these questions in writing workshop or in a conference with your teacher. Pose some problems to your peers or your teacher about issues that might occur in the writing process. The idea is to get a clear understanding of the writing style before you begin.

Perhaps you have to produce a video essay, but you’ve never done one and have no idea what software to use or how such software works. Don’t throw your hands up in confusion or put your head down in despair, ask your peers in class as well as your friends outside of the class if they know something about video essays.

Applying past knowledge to new situations

Have you thought about connections to what you have learned in prior courses on the topic?

While brainstorming topics for your video essay script, think about topics that interest you while tapping into prior learning in your life and classes. You think of a topic—“The Return of Records.” This allows you to draw upon your knowledge of the early 1900s, which you studied intensively during freshman year. In addition, you love music and the history of music. These two areas of prior knowledge can mesh together to make for a great video essay. You are not quite sure how yet, but they will.

Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision

Are you communicating your ideas with clear writing, thinking, and speaking?

An effective approach to making sure your thoughts and ideas are communicated clearly in your writing is to read your paper out loud to yourself or a friend. Ask yourself and a peer, “Is this essay communicating what I want it to?” “Does it sound like I want it to sound?”

Gathering data through all senses

Have you considered the senses within your writing, explaining the sights, taste, touch, and smell?

Make the reader feel that he or she is physically there in the story. Show the use of sound, taste, sight and touch. Check this out from a sophomore’s narrative feature.

“As soon as I walked inside, still lost in thought, my senses were overwhelmed. The lights in the lobby flashed purple and pink. Huge speakers blasted pop songs. Flamenco dancers swirled around offering free samples. There was more designer perfume in the air than oxygen. I loved it.”

Creating, imagining, innovating

Is your writing imaginative and original?

Writing a narrative feature blog about a trip to Hawaii with your family seems like an interesting topic that could be easy to write about. What would make it even more exciting? Think about the big takeaway from the vacation and then focus on the experiences that lead to that. Let’s face it: the reader doesn’t want a chronological laundry list of everything you did: first we went to the beach, and then we swam with sea turtles, and finally we ate at a luau. This is expected.

Developing a thematic insight in your narrative by showing a gradual transformation or an unanticipated understanding is the main goal. Remember, when the narrator or character changes, the reader can as well.

Responding with wonderment and awe

Are you inquiring about your topic? What is exciting?

You have the opportunity to choose your own topic for an argument project. Don’t just grab something off a list of top debates; select something that’s always intrigued you or that’s always bugged you. This is how you will inspire yourself and your audience. Even though you may be happier with no assignment at all, seize the opportunity to explore a topic that you really want to know more about.

Taking responsible risks

Are you trying different approaches to writing?

During the writing process you feel that improved word choice will help the reader understand your ideas. When tweaking your word choice, you have some doubts about whether your writing is awkward or sounds insincere or if you have developed the appropriate voice in the piece. These concerns are good to have; you should question your choices in your writing. When you revise with a peer or teacher, have discussions around those questions. Taking these risks will develop you as a writer.

Finding humor

Is it funny?

Before beginning a writing task, think about the funny aspect and making someone laugh. Often when you read a funny anecdote within a piece, it draws you in and you want to read more.

Ask yourself, “Would my humor in the introductory paragraph captivate the reader?” Remember, you’re not trying to constantly crack jokes and get your reader to fall off his or her chair in a belly laugh. However, when appropriate, getting the reader to chuckle inside and smile here and there is what it’s about—your writing becomes well-rounded. It becomes enlightening and entertaining.

Thinking interdependently

Have you worked together with other peers to get ideas? Maybe they have some insight.

Before selecting a topic, share your ideas with a group of students. The more you share with them the better. You can benefit from this experience by obtaining new ideas, information, insights and perspectives that you hadn’t considered. Plus, your peers will be a big help with your project down the road.

Remaining open to continuous learning

Have you gone back to research more information to add to your already great piece of writing?

You decide to have a writing conference with your teacher about your narrative feature article. While conferencing, your teacher repeatedly points out, “You need to show, not tell.”

After the conference you think about the meaning of that statement and realize it is something that you never ever think of while writing. With that feedback you begin to research some additional examples that show this idea, which in turn assists in developing your skills as a writer and a storyteller. 

Daniel Vollrath and a student meet in a writing conference.

Scott Einhorn has been teaching English for 18 years—the past 16 at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington. With his sophomore classes he uses the Habits of Mind to frame both reading and writing workshops, giving students time throughout the week to apply and reflect on behaviors that are crucial for success both in and out of the classroom.

He can be reached at

Daniel Vollrath is a special education teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School, and a United States Professional Development Trainer with The Institute for Habits of Mind. With a strong passion for developing curriculum, classroom culture and mindfulness based upon the Habits of Mind, Vollrath has infused dispositional thinking and reflection into the reading and writing workshop process. You can follow him on Twitter at @HabitsofMindInc and on Facebook at “Habits of Mind Inclusive Teaching and Learning.” On LinkedIn look for Daniel L. Vollrath, Ed.D. You may email him at

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